Ok we admit it, we’re as guilty of it as anyone: probing through every site, every app, every deal, desperately trying to find the cheapest European vacation that we can actually afford. It’s hard, isn’t it?
What if we told you — which, yes, we’re literally telling you right now — that you can take some seriously world-class European trips without breaking the bank! That you can enjoy the finest Mediterranean food, most Instagram-worthy Italian beaches, the time-worn castles and platinum lagers, and free-spirited Croats who make Europe one of the world’s most sought-after travel destinations. Once you cover your airfare, you can do it all for less than a long weekend in Los Angeles!
And trimming your budget doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the quality of your trip. In fact, spending less sometimes means getting to stay in a thatched Scottish farmhouse, perusing old masters in Greece, or snacking your way through Spanish delicacies aren’t just secrets of the frugal traveler…they’re the stuff dream vacations are made of. Here are the 10 best trips you can take if you’re looking for a cheap European vacation.
1. Budapest, Hungary
As former budget-friendly European cities grow increasingly expensive, prices in Budapest have remained relatively inviting to the international travel crowd. Though you might be thinking there’s no way you could possibly afford this, Hungary’s capital city really does provide a unique adventure for tourists to explore its charming daytime fun and its epic nightlife, all for a reasonable price. When you’re in town, you absolutely must visit the Ruin Bars of Budapest – it’s an unforgettable experience.
Budapest is full of old-time rigor, an eclectic assortment of communist, Turkish, and Roman architecture with an exorbitant amount of cultural landmarks. This romantic city is home to some of the best spas in Europe. Luxuriate by yourself in one of the many heated mineral baths and saunas or challenge a local to a game of chess at the renowned Széchenyi Bath, with day-pass entrances starting at just $15. Picture-worthy Airbnbs can be found for under $30 a night, and those Eastern European meals of slow-cooked meats and unforgiving heavy beers don’t exactly break the bank. To experience that traditional Hungarian food at a decent price, head to Great Market Hall, Budapest’s oldest and largest indoor market. Located at the end of the Szabadság Bridge, this three-story, Neo-Gothic bazaar is patronized by locals and tourists alike.
Budapest also offers free walking tours to get you acquainted (but don’t forget to tip your tour guide!) with the city. For breathtaking, panoramic views, meander across Chain Bridge or hike to the summit of Gellért Hill. Plan to spend a few hours — or days! — exploring Castle Hill. From Buda Castle to the underground Castle Labyrinth, to Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias Church, and the many more captivating medieval landmarks.
Though we recommend walking as your best way to get around the city, Budapest offers plenty of reliable public transportation options, including four metro lines, major tram lines, bus and trolley services, and even a boat services during the warmer months.
2. Prague, Czech Republic
Ahh Prague…A place some say is more beautiful than Paris; where beer is less than $2; where, despite skyrocketing popularity among Americans and Aussies alike, it’s still possible to find pockets of paradise to escape the tourists. This gorgeous, historic city feels so much like a fairytale that it’s hard to believe you can actually afford to come here.
The secret is out on Prague, so prices have been slowly creeping up there along with the increasing crowds of tourists. But even with its growing popularity, you still won’t break your budget. You can get incredible Airbnbs close to the Old Town center for under $40 a night. A decent hotel averages out to around $85 per night, which is much cheaper than its European city rivals like London ($260), Barcelona ($200) and Paris ($190). And the city is so small that you don’t have to worry about paying for transportation and can see everything on foot — it’s still a lot of walking, but it’s well worth it.
The Czech capital is almost ineffably stunning, with winding cobblestone alleyways, ornate Gothic architecture, and grand Baroque churches almost everywhere you look. This forgotten cultural delight offers a fascinating mix of medieval and Communist history. It has the largest castle structure in the world, replete with torture chambers, some of the older pubs and beer halls in Europe. Traipsing off the beaten path will serve you well here. Explore Malá Strana and relish in the glorious view of the city from the top of Petřín Hill. Make sure to snag yourself some late-night smažený sýr (breaded fried cheese) off a food cart, and if you’re looking for a unique and admittedly eery place to have a $2 pint, head over to Bunkr Parukarka and drink inside a nuclear fallout shelter. Kafka would’ve gone crazy for it.
PRO TIP: Prague is best (in terms of price) for last minute holidays. Our research showed that the cheapest flights are available when booking less than two weeks before departure.
3. Athens, Greece
When you think of Greece, images of white-washed villages cascading down hillsides, cerulean seas sparkling in the bright sunlight, and powder-soft white sandy beaches immediately come to mind. Are we wrong? That’s what we thought.
A visit to this special country is a lifelong bucket list destination, as it offers an astonishing array of heart-stopping views, ancient ruins, joie de vivre, and that hard-to-define, dreamlike quality that makes Greece, Greece. To some, this trip might seem like as feasible as a trip to Atlantis, but in fact, it’s a pretty affordable trip to take these days. Even as the country deals with an ongoing financial crisis, the tourism industry is still there, ready and raring to go. What this means for travelers is that places that used to be super pricey are now more affordable, with a greater range of availability than usual and more bang for your buck. Your trip to Greece can be done in style, and without breaking the bank.
Firstly, you should go during “shoulder season.” July and August are Greece’s peak tourist months, which means higher priced hotels, flights, and tours. However if you travel from April through the beginning of June, and from September through November, prices can drop by as much as half. During these shoulder months, you can rent a nice apartment close to town for less than $100 per night. If you’re traveling as part of a group of six or more people, though, renting a spacious villa with a staff, a pool, and other bells and whistles will be less expensive, by as much as 30 percent, than booking individual hotel rooms.
And you don’t need to book an endless lineup of tours and excursions to have a gratifying getaway, either, as most are expensive and don’t necessarily upgrade your trip. We suggest splurging on a few private experiences based on your interests — history buffs could consider a private tour of one of Athens’ many important historical sites while beach lovers might want to spring for a daytime sailing trip. However for the most part, traveling independently and eschewing the big consolidators and package dealers is the way to go. You’ll be helping your wallets and those of the locals, too. There are also lots of packages that are worth considering. You can purchase a five-day pass to see most of the major archaeological sites in Athens for around $35.
You’ll also find that you can eat very well in Athens on a budget, as some of the country’s best cuisine are cheap, simple pleasures made on the fly. Keep a special eye out for Souvlaki, the ultimate Grecian street food: spicy skewers grilled, garnished, and wrapped in pillows of pita in perfect synchronicity. Wash those down with a Fix beer, and you’ll still have change from your €5! The Athenian farmers’ markets (laiki) are also an excellent resource for fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats that give you enough change leftover to splurge for a seafood dinner for two one night.
4. Krakow, Poland
When you think of Europe’s biggest vacation destinations, you think: Barcelona, Amsterdam, London, Paris. Krakow, Poland’s “second city” and former capital, barely gets a mention, which is a shame, as it is truly one of Europe’s most magical hidden gems. Krakow is one of the country’s hubs for art and culture and is packed full of beautiful architecture, rivaling cities like Vienna and Oxford, and there’s a cooler edge to it, as well, with a fascinating recent history to discover. It is not an ultra-budget destination, so if you really want to treat yourself and get a bit of luxury for a reasonable price then it’s perfect.
Poland’s Communist history has delayed its catching up in the capitalist market, which means that even the thriftiest traveler can still, quite literally, ball out. A chic, luxury Airbnb won’t set you back more than $50 a night and rooms at four- and five-star hotels cost less than $100. Taxis here are very affordable, and the central Old Town and its magical attractions are conveniently walkable. Due to all the money you’ll be saving on this trip, you can see almost everything this otherworldly city has to offer.
Krakow is the ultimate hipster-historic darling, and Kazimierz, the former Jewish district, is undoubtedly one of Europe’s coolest neighborhoods. And while badass, it’s also sobering as one of the main stages of the Holocaust. Harrowing memories still scar these streets, from the Ghetto Heroes Monument to an unwary pharmacy that once secretly provided medical aid to persecuted Jews at nearby concentration camp, Auschwitz. Much of this history is wrenching to hear, but
Spend your afternoons winding around the synagogues and graffiti art, spotting locals nibbling kosher delicacies, and boutique shopping. Spend your evenings in the slew of dive bars boasting fairytale charm, from the candlelit Alchemia to the trashy-chic La Habana and the absinthe lair Absynt Cafe.
Krakow’s heckin’ awesome, but it’s also sobering as one of the main stages of the Holocaust. Painful memories are still scarred on these streets, from the Ghetto Heroes Monument, to an unsuspecting pharmacy that once secretly provided medicine to persecuted Jews, to the nearby concentration camp Auschwitz. Much of this history is wrenching to hear and think about, but you’ll know in your heart that it must never, ever be forgotten. Auschwitz will most definitely be the most expensive tour, but it is worth the cost.
Also check out Plac Nowy, which is brimming with unique flea markets and antique bazaars, and be prepared to spend nominally while also gaining some pounds — Traditional Polish food is hearty and cheap, so you’ll be gorging on $2 pints, $2 grilled kielbasa, and entree platters bulging with food for as low as $4. You can even get a three-course meal with wine at a fine dining restaurant for under $20.
5. Berlin, Germany
Germany’s capital city is one of the more progressive and laid-back cities in Western Europe. It’s an ineffable mix of old-school Europe and youthful hipster energy. It’s got a fascinating history, from the recent affairs of the Berlin Wall dating back to its wartime history. There are countless museums filled with thousand-plus-year-old artifacts. And then there’s the ultra-modern, vibrant culture of dynamic street art, fashion, and music from around the world.
Thankfully, finding a cheap yet decent hotel is as easy as finding a great club (which, FYI, is really easy here). You can rent an Airbnb close to the center of the city for as little as $30 a day and snag a comfortable hotel room for around $85.
Most of Berlin’s most famous sights are free to visit, such as the Brandenburg Gate, Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, and the East Side Gallery, which is an open-aired art gallery alongside a section of the old Berlin Wall. You can also gain free entry to the Reichstag and Berlin Wall Memorial. Or, if you want a more formal introduction to the city, there are several companies offering free walking tours where the only compensation required is the gratuity for your guide.
If you’re there during the summer months, you’ll certainly want to head to the massive Tiergarten Park for a picnic somewhere among its sprawling 600 acres of lawns, pathways, and bodies of water. If beaches are more your thing, you can take a 20-minute train ride to Strandbar Mitte for around $8 and soak up the rays along the River Spree. Music buffs can enjoy free lunchtime concerts on Tuesdays in the foyer of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well.
There’s also a bustling nightlife, whether you’re looking for more relaxing vibes in a biergarten (Berlin is home to the world’s longest beer garden) or ready to dance the night away at one of the many clubs, like the infamous Berghain. A little tip — if there’s a line outside some grungy-looking warehouse, join it. Your night will be filled with dancing, drinking, mischief, and music from some of the best DJs in the world. Plus, after a night of partying you can stumble to pretty much any street corner and get a traditional German currywurst for $3 with a pint of beer for the same price.
6. Porto, Portugal
Conversations about Porto usually include some kind of comparison to Lisbon, its bustling big-city neighbor. But we love Porto just for being, well, Porto. Set on a stunning rolling landscape, this underrated city has been making waves recently for its exciting new architecture, great public markets, and thriving art scene. The city that gave Portugal its name is captivating, perfectly blending history, tradition, and modern Portuguese culture. The best part? It’s a budget traveler’s paradise.
You can rent gorgeous apartments and lofts for under $100 a night if you book far enough in advance, so it’s important to plan ahead when visiting. The city’s downtown is small enough where you can avoid transportation costs and tour many of its main attractions by foot, which, if you ask us, is the best way to explore anyways. Getting lost and meandering the winding medieval alleyways and steep staircases make for a perfect afternoon.
Ideal for strolling and bargain shopping, you can’t miss the Mercado do Bolhão public market and the contemporary art galleries clustered along Rua Miguel Bombarda. Gryffindor fans are in for a treat, too. J.K. Rowling taught English in Porto back in the 90’s and was a regular at the now-famed Livraria Lello bookstore. Rumor has it that its ornate bookcases, carved wooden ceilings and lavish staircases inspired the Hogwarts Library.
Casa da Musica is an absolute must stop on your strolls. The concert hall, designed by Rem Koolhaas, is home to three symphony orchestras and was inaugurated by the late Lou Reed in 2005. And if the quirky design triggers your inner hipster, walk down to Porto’s Ribeira neighborhood and check out its burgeoning collection of bars and cafes. Don’t worry, eating and drinking in Porto, even in upscale sit-down restaurants, is cheaper than pretty much any meal you’d have in Paris. Imagine what you’d throw down at your local Chili’s for lunch, but instead you’re sipping delicious wine at a white-tablecloth riverside restaurant, where the seafood is so fresh it practically jumped out of the ocean like that. That is Porto.
And if you’re wondering about Port wine, not to fret. Portugal’s national drink is ubiquitous across the country, particularly in its eponymous home. This treasured after-dinner wine was popularized by the English during the early 18th century when it was discovered that mixing Portuguese red wine with brandy would make it endure the long maritime journey back to Britain. Porto’s port houses are scattered along the river’s southern bank, Vila Nova de Gaia. Visitors can inexpensively tour most of them and indulge in however many tastings you can handle. You may leave with your head spinning, as it’s one strong elixir, but you’ll finally know your tawny from your ruby.
7. Puglia, Italy
Everybody falls in love with Italy. For many, the moment happens perusing the streets of Rome, the beaches of Sicily or the colorful coast of Amalfi. It may happen over pizza in Napoli or on that rainy day in Milan. However our Italian love affair is with the lesser known, lesser priced region of Puglia (pronounced pool-ya). Puglia, made up of 6 different regions, is easily identified on the map as it runs down the east coast The Gargano Peninsula all the way into the “heel of the boot.” This gem of a city has been a popular summer location for northern Italians for decades. Thankfully, Puglia remains a place which is by Italians for Italians, untouched by influences from the rest of the world.
The iconic architecture of Puglia is the prehistoric trullo, the traditional whitewashed hut with a cone-shaped roof of stacked gray stones. There’s no greater concentration of trulli than in the UNESCO-protected town of Alberobello, where entire neighborhoods are made of them. And you can stay in one! Local entrepreneurs fixed up dozens of the abandoned ones some years back to create Trullidea, which rents them out to visitors for surprisingly low prices. Cool in the sweltering summers and with cozy fireplaces for wintertime, these rental trulli let you live like a local for less than the cost of a mediocre hotel in the big city.
Now, it would be quite easy to go to Puglia and spend thousands, but thankfully, Puglia is accessible for travelers looking to discover the region independently and on a budget. You can experience a wide range of food and wine excursions for well under €15. Do all the winery tours and tastings you can, watch how olive oil is made at an ancient olive mill; watch mozzarella and burr cheeses being made; learn how to make fresh orecchiette pasta, tour one of the many amazing fresh markets; or watch the fishermen unload their catch of the day at the ports. You could literally fill an entire itinerary eating and drinking your way through Puglia without hurting your wallet, and we highly recommend it.
Puglia’s best attractions are, by and large, available for free. Home to some of the best beaches in the world, this 800 km coastline varies from quiet sandy beaches to craggy cliff tops and rocky promontories, giving you the opportunity to experience the luxuriant and the dramatic almost in the same place. Puglia also houses one of the world’s greatest cliff-diving areas, if you’re the more adventurous type.
There is great shopping and even better sightseeing in every region of Puglia. Shopping enthusiasts should head to Corso Cavour, Via Sparano and Via Manzoni for some truly unique bargain boutiques. And though the shopping is great, the sightseeing is better. Every neighborhood is filled with such rich history. You’ll see a wealth of ancient churches, monuments, piazzas, and theaters. A highlight you won’t want to miss is the Basilica di San Nicola, or the Church of Saint Nicolas in Bari. Considered to be the resting home for Santa Claus, this is the region’s top attraction. It was built in 1807 to house the remains of the saint and currently showcases many different architectural styles and breathtaking artwork.
As for transportation, renting a car is fairly inexpensive, but the train system is great and connects you to all parts of Italy with ease. The buzz about Puglia has recently begun, though, so you should visit sooner rather than later.
8. Brussels, Belgium
Everybody has to check out Brussels at least once in their life, and, despite what you might think, there are a ton of ways to get the most out of your dollars without going overboard. Firstly, flights are cheap if you get them early enough in advance. Depending on what city you’re flying in from, flights from the US can be found for as low as $400. Accommodations are easy, as there is an array of charming Airbnbs and hotels for less than $100 per night.
One of the best ways to get to know the city is by taking one of their many free walking tours. There are plenty of companies around the city which allow you to book online, but you can also walk around Grand Palace where you’re sure to see people advertising these tours (look for a red umbrella). The city’s main square, the Grand Palace, is unbelievably beautiful and offers a terrific amount of history and culture, so having a guide will prove beneficial and get you truly acquainted with all Brussels has to offer.
Your guide will surely take you to see the Manneken Pis statue, which is actually a huge icon of the city. This statue, which is just a little boy peeing (we’re serious), was originally made of stone in the 15th century and was such a big hit with the Belgian people that it was re-made with bronze in 1619. This area of the city used to be the market area for urine. The ammonia in urine was used in the leather making process, and many poor people would come here to sell their urine to leather makers. And if you happen to be lucky, you may catch the Mannekin Pis on a day where it is hooked up to a beer keg! Yes, you heard us right. Grab a pint and fill your glass with peer literally peed out of a historic statue!
Another important monument of the city is the Atomium, which is a unique building constructed in 1958 as 9 atoms joined together, magnified 65 billion times. Visitors can go inside some of the spheres for free for breathtaking views.
Brussels also takes street art to a whole new level. It’s been dubbed the “Comic Strip Capital” and has actually commissioned several local comic book artists to spruce up many of the city’s bare spaces. As you walk, you’ll start to notice more and more fun and colorful comics spread throughout.
As for the food? Skip the overpriced and touristy spots for mom-and-pop chocolatiers (Leonidas is a favorite among the locals). Buy delicious waffles, fries, and even bowls of fresh mussels from street vendors. There are Michelin-starred restaurants scattered throughout, but you can find equally mouthwatering meals for fast food prices. So keep an eye out.
We highly suggest investing in a Brussels Card upon your arrival as well. There are several different kinds of cards you can purchase, but there are cards with public transportation options as well as discounts for various attractions, shops, restaurants and more. It costs around €45, but will save you a serious amount of cash by the end of your trip.
9. Zagreb, Croatia
The word is out on Dubrovnik thanks to Game of Thrones, but Croatia’s lively and quirky capital has yet to be overrun with tourists and tourist prices. You can find a good Airbnb near the city’s downtown for less than $40 a day, or you can opt for the Swanky Mint Hostel (which is actually kind of swanky) for just $15.
Though it may not have the Adriatic Sea or the beach, the city of Zagreb’s vibrance, culture, and history will charm you almost immediately. From its intriguing architecture to nearby natural havens (not to mention its epic coffee scene), the city offers something for everyone. Stunning to walk around, there’s a lot more to do here than just wander the cobbled streets and photograph the old architecture. Zagreb holds the record for most museums per capita than any other city in the world. The Museum of Broken Relationships is just as weird as it is awesome.
Also not to be missed is the Grič Tunnel, which runs directly through the heart of the city. The tunnel was built in 1945 with the intent of being a shelter from the Allied bombing attacks and was later used in the early 1990’s during the Croatian War of Independence. Less than two years ago it was opened to the public. If you’re there over a weekend, put on your chicest outfit and take part in špica (pronounced “shpitza”) where locals get coffee and run errands on Saturday and Sunday mornings for the sole purpose of being seen. A fun, free way of rubbing elbows with the who’s who of the city.
Definitely stop by A Most Unusual Garden, a cafe and bar that’s actually a treehouse, for some cheap eats and treats, but Mundoaka Street Food is where you’ll want to be when you’re ready to dove into traditional Croatian cuisine. Zagreb also throws one hell of a late-night party. Head to Opera for the best of the club scene and be prepared to drink…we mean it. The locals are already there, ready and waiting to drink you under the table.
The best and cheapest ways to get around are via the city tram where a day pass is just $7, or to rent a bike through the nextbike system. The first 30 minutes are free and each hour after is just $1.
10. Glasgow, Scotland
Scotland’s largest city is often overlooked for its capital sister to the east. And while Edinburgh flaunts its gorgeous castles and hilly historical charm, Glasgow’s is a working city full of contrasts, by turns gritty, glamorous and generous – and one well worth getting to know a little better.
Getting to Glasgow is pretty easy, with lots of transportation and price options to choose from. Flights into the city are relatively cheap. You can fly from the US East Coast for under $500, and if you’re traveling there from Europe, trains and busses run from most European cities through Glasgow. The Virgin rail from London leaves London every 40 minutes, takes less than 5 hours, and costs less than $40. Accommodations can be found with ease and without breaking your budget as well. Both local and major chain hotels like Hilton can be found for under $100 per night, and you can even rent out an entire apartment for around the same price through Airbnb. Once you’re in the city, we highly suggest getting an all-day subway pass for $3, as it will save you lots of cash in the long run.
Glasgow has an incredible amount of great museums, parks, and churches, and there are plenty of free tours to help you get acquainted with the city’s rich history. The works of famed architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh are among Glasgow’s top attractions to visit. Head over to the Lighthouse building, which was Mackintosh’s first architectural commission. It host a number of displays and exhibitions, including one about Mackintosh himself. You can even climb its spiral staircase to the top of the tower for an unbeatable, unbelievable panoramic view of the city. Also able to be explored for free is the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, one of the most visited museums in the country featuring a collection that truly caters to all tastes, encompassing everything from Salvador Dali to Spitfire planes. Head over to the Hunterian, the oldest, museum in the country or The People’s Palace for an excellent overview of the city’s social history.
The Glasgow Cathedral is also worth taking time to explore. Built in the late 12th century, this gorgeous cathedral is still in use for Catholic services today. Adjacent is the Victorian Necropolis, where more than 50,000 people are buried there. It’s well worth taking the look.
In terms of dining, you are spoiled for choice for both eating and drinking in the city, and often you don’t even have to decide between the two, as many bars and pubs also serve some of the cities tastiest and cheapest eats. We also recommend checking out a traditional fish and chips shop, though whether you want to test out the Scottish habit of deep-frying everything is 100% up to you!